We're far enough into the season that certain players' slow starts have become more than that. Is it time to cut bait on formerly reliable studs like Kuznetsov?
It's almost time to toss "don't panic" talk out the window in fantasy hockey leagues. Slow starts are insurmountable at this juncture in most pools, but GMs should start identifying and assessing their problem areas. Some struggling stars can still shake off their slumps, but others are showing legitimate red flags right now. The sample sizes are big enough to warrant worrying in certain cases.
That seems to be the theme of almost every question I received for this month's mailbag. Plenty of you find yourselves at crossroads with some typically valuable fantasy commodities. Let's see if I can help you make some tough decisions.
Austin Gagne (@gagne31): Who are the top 10 prospects outside the NHL?
Fun question, Austin, and I'll use it as a chance to plug our recent special THN magazine, Prospects Unlimited. In that edition, we ranked the top 100 players aged 21 and younger at any level. That included current NHLers, players drafted to the NHL but not yet playing there, and even youngsters years away from their draft years. As for a top 10 prospects outside the NHL, I'll pull the best 10 from Prospects Unlimited. I'll include their overall rank too (as they're mixed in with 21-and-under NHLers like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, too):
- Dylan Strome, C (9th)
- Joe Veleno, C (17th)
- Nolan Patrick, C (21st)
- Timothy Liljegren, D (22nd)
- Ilya Samsonov, G (24th)
- Kyle Connor, LW (26th)
- Pierre-Luc Dubois, D (27th)
- Olli Juolevi, D (28th)
- Oliver Wahlstrom, C (30th)
- Clayton Keller, C (31st)
Note the inclusion of Connor. He just got sent to the AHL, so he's not an NHLer right now.
Ryan Kleinau (@rkleinau): Will Semyon Varlamov ever turn it around, or is keeping him as one of my two starting goalies a mistake?
Varlamov is undoubtedly better than his season numbers suggest. He's actually improved a bit of late, posting a .926 save percentage over his past eight appearances. Still, it's understandable to be concerned about him. He has a bad team playing in front of him. He regularly faces 30 to 40 shots in a game. He has a good backup behind him in Calvin Pickard. If your league is relatively deep and relies on volume goalie stats such as saves, however, I wouldn't cut bait on Varlamov yet. Your best-case scenario might be a real-life trade that puts him on a better team. It could happen.
Darrell Samuels (Darrell_Samuels): I am first in my pool. Goalies are Matt Murray, Marc-Andre Fleury and Devan Dubnyk. Tempted to move Fleury. Do I deal him? #Dealornodeal
If you can move Fleury for another goaltender with a clearer path to regular starts, go for it. We know the Penguins can't finish the year with Fleury and Murray, as it would mean losing Murray in the expansion draft (Fleury has to be protected because of his no-movement clause). So rather than sit on a platoon and wait for a Fleury trade, why not use him to secure yourself goalies from three different teams, increasing your ceiling of starts? That said, I wouldn't rush to move Fleury for a skater, especially if teams in your league carry many goalies and rotate them, as you won't get enough starts from just Murray alone. If you can buy low on a Freddie Andersen type for Fleury, though, do it.
Bran Glen (iB20GLEN): Who wins this trade: Wayne Simmonds, Max Pacioretty and Vincent Trocheck for Patrik Laine, Dylan Larkin and Marc-Andre Fleury? #keeperpool
This is a slam-dunk. Any team acquiring Laine in a keeper pool is in good shape. And you get Larkin coming your way on top of that? This one's a no brainer. Laine is a top-10 forward commodity already in keeper formats.
Harold P (@howie379): Do you like Patrick Maroon from Edmonton?
He's a handy and underrated player in fantasy. I have him on my team in my most important league. He's played 45 games as an Oiler over the past two seasons, amassing 16 goals, 27 points, 62 penalty minutes and 100 hits. Pro-rated to an 82-game season: 29 goals, 49 points, 113 PIM, 182 hits. That's a valuable stat line in any league. He's a nice depth option who gets chances to play with Connor McDavid from time to time.
Robert Doane (@Daybreak_Dude): Your expected BIGGEST second-half producers with slow starts?
I'll single out three top-flight producers from last year: Johnny Gaudreau, Anze Kopitar and Aleksander Barkov.
The three-week injury layoff seemed to do 'Johnny Hockey' wonders, as he's returned to the lineup possessed, with three straight two-point games. He's making up for lost time. It wouldn't be remotely surprising to see him score at a top-five rate the rest of the year.
As for Kopitar, he's done this before. He had 13 points in 23 games through the end of November last season, then had 61 points in 58 games from December onward. He'll be just fine.
Barkov, though, is probably my favorite buy-low in the whole league right now. He's scoring on just 7.7 percent of his shots and is a 12.8 percent career shooter, so he's in store for positive regression. He's an outstanding possession player who generates lots of shot attempts. He's already starting to come out of his slump, with 10 points in his past 11 games. The overall season line of 5-13-18 in 28 games doesn't look too special, though, so it's worth trying to steal him in a trade from an oblivious owner.
Ben gravel (@Powerforward68): Evgeny Kuznetsov AND Andre Burakovsky? What's up with them?!?
Bad sign: I chose Kuznetsov for the main photo in the previous mailbag, too. It's been a problem all season. Owners understandably drafted him expecting a top-10 scorer after he was one last year. So what on Earth is wrong with the kid? We can't blame it on deployment. Kuznetsov's most common linemate this season has been Alex Ovechkin, and Kuznetsov's ice time has been virtually identical to last year's. On one hand, Kuznetsov has some of the game's best pure hands, and he's bound to get hot at some point, so he's a decent buy-low target. On the other hand, if you're buying low, aim to get him for 75 cents on the dollar. Don't give up too much, as he's shown some red flags. Kuznetsov shot the puck 2.35 times per game last year and has tumbled to 1.60 this year. He seems to be more hesitant. Concern is officially warranted.
As for Burakovsky, he's just not quite established yet as a consistently dangerous NHL scorer. He's prone to streaks and slumps, and he doesn't always play on Barry Trotz's top two lines. I wouldn't blame anyone for dropping him, but the funny thing is…if you do, I'd advise other GMs to scoop him up. His shooting percentage is way below his norm, and his upside makes him worth a one-week flier for any team.
Chris Pumo (cpumo21): What's up with Filip Forsberg???
Forsberg's struggles are a fluke in my eyes. He still gets lots of ice time. His shooting percentage is ridiculously low. He'll go on a tear soon enough. Don't worry about him.
Terry Cain (@tcain47): Due for a comeback or not: Patrice Bergeron? Tyler Johnson?
Bergeron for sure. He remains an absolutely elite defensive forward, the sport's best, and will always get oodles of ice time as a result. Bergeron is also shooting the puck at close to his normal rate. The pucks will start going in. He's due for a huge surge. Johnson, on the other hand, confounds me a bit. It's starting to look like his 72-point breakout of 2014-15 was an anomaly.
Jasoc Pullen (@JacobPullen): Will Jamie Benn get back to normal?
I think he will. He's still producing at close to a point per game. It's possible Benn just needed time to get physically comfortable after recovering from core muscle surgery, which forced him out of the World Cup. I predict a big second half.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin